Non la (translated as “conical hat”) is not only a normal hat, but also one of Vietnam’s symbols of charm.
Every country has its own national headgear. The United States has the baseball cap, Britain is famous for the London bobby’s helmet. Greece is associated with the fisherman’s hat, while the beret is the symbol of France. The Israelis use the yarmulke and we usually see the Saudi Arabians in their white headdresses. Indian Sikhs wrap their heads in elaborate turbans while Russians warm their craniums with fur hats, which are of good use even at fifty Degree Celsius below zero. In Vietnam, the national chapeau is the non, or conical peasant hat. Along with the graceful silk ao dai, the non has become a sort of informal Vietnamese national symbol that is recognized worldwide.
How inseparable it is?
The hat has a conical shape, made out of straw and is kept on the head by a silk cloth chin trap that keeps the hat from slipping out of the wearer’s head. This traditional conical hat is particularly suitable for farmers in such a tropical country as Vietnam where fierce sunshine and hard rains take place as often as girls’ sulking. It can be used as a basin or a bowl to contain water when they are thirsty, as a fan when they are hot, as a basket of a bunch of vegetables. Romantically, young couples can veil their kisses behind this traditional conical hat during their dates.
The legend behind the hat is that, once upon a time, there was a very tall woman who often wore a magical kind of hat made from four round leaves knitted together with bamboo. Wherever this woman appeared, clouds passed and the weather became favorable. After teaching people to plant vegetables and trees for their living, she secretly passed and ascended to the heavens. Yet, she was honored as the Goddess of Human and ever since, they have made hats in the shape of hers to protect themselves from the sun and the rain.
Is making a conical hat difficult?
If you look at a hat, it seems easily to make. Yet, it is not! “Conical hat making requires painstaking precision”, said 83 year-old Le Thi Viet, the oldest master of Chuong village where thousands of conical hats are produced every day. It is therefore considered the home of the conical hat in today’s Vietnam.
To make a proper hat, not only the maker is talent but also their experiences are plentiful. After being separated into very thin strings during the dry season, bamboo cataphyll then must be quickly submerged in water to preclude tearing and breaking. The palm, after being cleaned by sand, will be torn and turned from dark green to white after being sun-seasoned. The stronger the sun, the whiter the palms will become. Finally, to make them whiter and to preserve the color, they will be exposed sulfur, separated and ironed. Sewing and decorating must be sophisticated, too. You have to sew small and even stitches, which means you need time and patience.
Only watching craftsmen sewing conical hats inside brown tile-roofed houses in Chuong village can give you the real understanding. Looking at an old woman with crooked back, wrinkled face and shriveled hands, it’s hard to imagine that she can hold her hands steady enough to do the needlework, but she manages it skillfully. “My mother taught me to sew non la when I was six years old. Now I’m 78.I could sew hats with my eyes closed,” Tam smiled.
A long history
According to historian Le Van Lan, Vietnamese girls and women have worn the conical hat for a long time. The ancestor of today’s conical hat was carved on Ngoc Lu kettledrum and Ao Thinh bronze jar 2,500 to 3000 years ago. “Though no one knows exactly when the hat was born, for a long time the conical hat has been considered the symbol of Vietnamese farmers and Vietnamese people, in general,” says Lan.
The original lands of conical hat
If you ask me where you can find the best conical hat, I would say that due to its popularity, each region in Vietnam has a well-known conical hat – making village. The conical hat of the Tay group has a distinctively red color, whereas that in Thanh Hoa differs from others with a 20-hem frame. Hue’s is thin and elegant, contrary to the thick ones from Binh Dinh.
Chuong village produces 7,000 to 8,000 conical hats per day and about three million hats per year for both domestic use and export. “Our regular clients from the south, the centre or other northern provinces phone in orders so we can deliver immediately,” said Tuy, a 40-year old craftsman. “My latest contract is with a handicrafts export company, in which I proposed to export up to 5,000 conical hats to Japan.”
It seems that every family in Chuong village is making conical hats. According to statistics, 80 percent of the village’s population earn their living by conical hat production. The average income is around VND 700,000 to VND 1 million a month; the income is higher in summer than in winter as it is harder to sew the hats in winter. In the village, you only pay VND 3,500- VND 10,000 for a hat but in Hanoi, it might cost VND 30,000 to VND100, 000 depending on the quality.